While we’ve already debunked Meryl Streep’s accusation that Walt Disney was a “gender bigot,” let us use her comments as an opportunity to dig even deeper and find out what actions Disney actually undertook to encourage the advancement of women at his studio.
The answer to that question lies in a speech that Disney gave to his company’s artists on February 10, 1941, during which he explained that the studio would begin to train women artists. Below is the relevant excerpt from the speech, which can be found in Walt Disney: Conversations. The emphasises are mine:
Another ugly rumor is that we are trying to develop girls for animation to replace higher-priced men. This is the silliest thing I have ever heard of. We are not interested in low-priced help. We are interested in efficient help. Maybe an explanation of why we are training the girls is in order. First, I would like to qualify it with this—that if a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man.
The girls are being trained for inbetweens for very good reasons. The first is, to make them more versatile, so that the peak loads of inbetweening and inking can be handled. Believe me when I say that the more versatile our organization is, the more beneficial it is to the employees, for it assures steady employment for the employee, as well as steady production turnover for the Studio.
The second reason is that the possibility of a war, let alone the peacetime conscription, may take many of our young men now employed, and especially many of the young applicants. I believe that if there is to be a business for these young men to come back to after the war, it must be maintained during the war. The girls can help here.
Third, the girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe that they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could. In the present group that are training for inbetweens there are definite prospects, and a good example is to mention the work of Ethel Kulsar and Sylvia Holland on “The Nutcracker Suite,” and little Retta Scott, of whom you will hear more when you see Bambi.
This is the earliest instance I’ve ever seen of an animation executive articulating that women should have equal opportunities as the men to contribute creatively to the production of films. Reading between the lines, I think it’s safe to assume that Disney’s launch of a training program for women had been considered an affront to the studio’s male-dominated creative staff. Disney, therefore, took a courageous stand by telling employes that not only would he continue the training program, but that women would eventually contribute things that “men never would or could.”